Mercury News: Lobbyists As “Shadow Legislature” in CA

A special report explains the "Sacramento version" of lawmaking

There’s the “Civics Class Version” of “How Laws Are Created,” in which, in brief, a legislator has an idea for a bill, oversees its drafting, seeks support from colleagues, and then enjoys a sense of pride upon the law’s passage. And then there’s the “Sacramento Version,” in which lobbyists play a starring role from conception to drafting to passage.

A slightly belated tip of the hat to San Jose Mercury News reporter Karen de Sa, former Sacramento correspondent Edwin Garcia, news research director Leigh Poitinger, intern Sarah Yokubaitis, and photographer Dai Sugano, for their special report earlier this month, on which they spent more than a year, detailing the “Sacramento Version” of lawmaking (complete with an effective graphic created by Andrea Maschietto and Doug Griswold reminding readers, as noted above, of how the reality often compares to what we learned in civics class).

From Part 1 of 2, on July 16th:

A lobbyist has an idea to make life better — but only for his client. The lobbyist writes the bill, shops for a willing lawmaker to introduce it and lines up the support. The legislator? He has to do little more than show up and vote.

This is the path of the “sponsored bill,” a method of lawmaking little noticed outside California’s capital but long favored on the inside. In many states lobbyists influence legislators; in California, they have — quite baldly — taken center stage in lawmaking.

Although lawmakers in recent years have routinely failed to grapple with health care, the state budget and other matters of public interest, they’ve managed to do the bidding of the private interests who tout sponsored bills at an impressive clip.

A Mercury News analysis found that in 2007-08, the most recent complete two-year legislative session, more than 1,800 bills — about 39 percent of the total — were sponsored by outside interests. And those sponsored bills made up 60 percent of the legislation that was passed into law.

This is how plumbing manufacturers ensured that industry-friendly labs — and not state regulators — would conduct the testing that determines whether drinking faucets sold in California are lead-free. This is how a Los Angeles County billionaire crushed a legal challenge over whether his plans for a new football stadium violated the state’s long-standing environmental protection law.

Recalling his first encounters with lobbyists seeking legislative backing for their bills, former Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla said, “It’s like being in a Middle Eastern bazaar. You are surrounded by hawkers saying, ‘Take this one, no, take this one, no, I’ve got a better one over here.’ The openness of that — the ‘oh yeah, that’s the way things are done’ attitude — was the most shocking.”

The report, part two of which focuses on how “term limits have encouraged lawmakers’ dependence on sponsors,” offers a wealth of well-presented information, including informative graphics, two case studies, and a searchable data base of “California bills, their authors of record and the sponsoring organizations.”

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.